Women’s football must be played in more big stadiums

Suzanne Wrack
Photograph: John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

Women’s football is having a lightbulb moment. With Manchester City hosting Manchester United at the Etihad stadium in the Women’s Super League in front of more than 31,000 fans, and Chelsea welcoming Tottenham to Stamford Bridge, change is afoot.

And the clubs are experimenting too: City charged for tickets, while Chelsea are giving them away. There are arguments for both plans. With around 40,000 tickets given out for the London game, even a 50% drop-off would see an impressive 20,000 people through the gates. But by not charging, Chelsea are choosing not to assign a value to a growing, competitive, elite sport played by international-level athletes.

Hosting showpiece fixtures at men’s grounds is not a new idea: last year Brighton played their season finale against Arsenal at the club’s Amex stadium, and Aston Villa played Leicester at Villa Park, to name two. By comparison, 3,783 fans watched Chelsea being beaten by Wolfsburg in 2016 in the Champions League at Stamford Bridge. And in 2008, Arsenal beat Chelsea at the Emirates in front of 5,000.

But for years those games have shaped the narrative. Fans, players and the authorities cite the lack of atmosphere at a big ground with a small crowd as less desirable than a smaller crowd in a more intimate space.

There are problems with this approach. Regular Women’s Super League venues are significantly less accessible than the men’s big grounds, and often miles away from a club’s traditional heartland.

Arsenal play at Borehamwood, (12.2 miles from the Emirates) Chelsea at Kingsmeadow (7.3 miles from Stamford Bridge), Brighton in Crawley (21.1 miles from the Amex), and Birmingham in Solihull (7.6 miles from St Andrews). The list goes on. Perhaps the worst is newly promoted Manchester United, who play at Leigh Sports Village, a complex with wonderful facilities, but without a train station.

When it comes to attracting hardcore football fans to watch their women’s team too, you are asking them to give up their whole weekend and travel out of their way to do so – to break their matchday routine and venture into something new.

At Villa Park last season, fan after fan said they were at their first women’s match and would attend more regularly if they played there more often. The 1,618 record crowd rattled around inside the 42,785-seat stadium but dwarfed the usual 350-ish seen in their regular home of Boldmore.

But is more than quadrupling attendance worth the pain of empty seats? Yes and no. There is increasingly a belief among players and authorities that there might have to be a little pain if gains are to be made. That playing more regularly at main stadiums is an ideological step more than a practical one; that this is about status, about women’s football no longer being treated as the afterthought, the little sister.

A part of the change in narrative also says that, actually, we shouldn’t have to accept empty seats at all. Last year, record after record tumbled. A colossal 60,739 fans attended Atlético Madrid’s clash with title rivals Barcelona, setting a new Spanish league record. In Italy, Juventus gave away all tickets for their 39,000 capacity stadium when they played Fiorentina, and 25,907 fans watched European champions Lyon beat Paris St Germain. The promotion to the top division of Spurs and Manchester United has added traditional men’s derbies into the English calendar, from the London matches – Spurs against Arsenal, West Ham or Chelsea, whichever hates them more – and Manchester United against Liverpool or City.

These are in many cases women’s games that won’t be the most competitive, but enable clubs to pitch to fans and pull in a tribalistic crowd.

That is something the FA is testing too. By cleverly announcing during the World Cup that the Lionesses would take on Germany at Wembley, the FA was reflecting the rivalry in the men’s game. For women’s football followers, a USA, France, Japan, Sweden or even Australia game would be the more exciting tie, but without the same edge.

Suzanne Wrack is women’s sports writer for the Guardian